"There is no easy game for us," says Nick Mallett, the coach of Italy, as he weighs the chances of the Azzurri in their 11th season of Six Nations competition.
"Playing against sides higher than us in the International Board rankings is our permanent state, our default position." If this is tough on a rugby strategist of Mallett's standing – after all, he knew what it was to operate at the very top level, both on the club beat with Stade Français and on the international scene with the Springboks – he rarely, if ever lets on. It is, he explains, a matter of adjusting expectations.
Even when he has access to a fully fit squad, the South African knows he is up against it. When he loses a player as influential as Sergio Parisse, his captain and resident world-class performer at No 8, all he can see ahead of him is an apparently endless road full of crater-sized potholes. "Italian rugby has a long way to go before we can play Six Nations rugby effectively while absorbing major injuries," he admits. "It's not simply about dropping this guy and choosing someone else when things go wrong. It's more like a small club set-up where you must use what you have."
Italy have won only six times since entering the tournament in 2000, largely because they have struggled to replace the half-backs – Alessandro Troncon and Diego Dominguez – who did most to make them tick. Mallett, who admits to making a "disastrous" error by picking the flanker Mauro Bergamasco at scrum-half for last season's opening match at Twickenham, believes he now has an uncut diamond in the shape of 22-year-old Tito Tebaldi from Parma. He also rates the naturalised Australian outside-half Craig Gower.
In one sense there is no rush for Italy to start winning regularly. When France entered the old International Championship, making it a Five Nations affair, they did not taste victory until their sixth campaign. What is more, it took them half a century to win a title. But this is the professional era, and Mallett is nothing if not a professional. How long will he keep walking the road to nowhere?
Spotlight on Italy
The half-backs Tito Tebaldi and Craig Gower. Another Troncon-Dominguez axis at last?
*One to watch
Alessandro Zanni, a versatile back-row forward of genuine Test class.
*Can they win it?